Reflection on a contemporary populist movement

Going into the final week of the 2019 general election campaign, the hostility towards Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, calcified. The blatant and vicious lies touted by the media became embedded in people’s minds to a degree that’s rarely seen in politics and, having no foundation whatsoever, they were particularly egregious. But throughout the campaign, certain demographics, those you would imagine supporting a Labour, rather than Tory government, were significantly hostile and it was clear their minds were made up.

The contrast in 2017 was that, though the public were largely Labour sceptics and hostile to Jeremy Corbyn, the stories they’d heard had been fermented in political circles and felt somewhat second hand. By the summer of 2019 the stories were well established and perceived as factual, as much due to repetition as anything. Boris Johnson was shamelessly spouting lies without pushback, the Tory slogan was a vote winner while Labour’s was eminently forgettable and canvassing was difficult because of the time of year. Clearly it was the Tory’s to win, but in hindsight Labour had lost any chance of an upset by summer 2019. Had Corbyn pulled a rabbit out of a hat it would have been riddled with myxomatosis.

It was a done deal — the timing was only incidental.

You could probably go back to the 1980’s to find the roots of the 2019 defeat but the rot began with the Blair regime. Perpetuating Thatcher’s neoliberal form of government, though with a Labour twist, the seeds were sown for disenchantment in the so called red wall. It was the same sentiment amongst the white working class in America’s rustbelt that cost Hillary Clinton the presidency. While tinkering around the edges, Blair happily allowed the further asset stripping of our national wealth by corporations and billionaires. While those on the margins are always most badly affected, the white, home owning, working class are more influential and have steadily turned towards the Tories over the last 20 years as Labour has given them no material reason to maintain their loyalty.

At the same time that demographic tend to be patriotic royalists and proud of their work ethic so any policy concerning the redistribution of wealth can further alienate them. However if you read Labour’s manifesto from 2017 or 2019 — and not through the lens of mainstream media — its clear that the measures would benefit the whole of society rather than simply addressing welfare and poverty.

In 2017 the mainstream media (apart from printed media) still took electoral rules seriously and gave equal and fair exposure to all political parties. Its probably fair to say the media didn’t take Corbyn all that seriously and with Labour being 20 points behind in the polls why would they? However, in contrast to Theresa May’s robotic performances and the utter incompetence in dealing with the Tory manifesto, Jeremy Corbyn came across as very personable and the leaked Labour manifesto was an instant hit. Jeremy not only came across as genuine, he was novel, very unlike how the public generally see politicians. Given another 2 weeks of campaigning its quite conceivable that Labour could have defeated the Tories. That, of course, is a fanciful ‘what if’. But there were shenanigans within Labour HQ at the time that quite possibly did actually change the course of history.

These shenanigans had of course, been going on since 2015 when Jeremy first became elected as Labour leader. As well as Labour HQ leaking like a sieve, MP’s opposed to Corbyn were readily feeding a hostile press with true and fabricated stories as well as toxic gossip. Papers like the Guardian were more than happy to carry columns and stories discrediting the new regime while the infamous chicken coup was set up for maximum damage. Whatever anyone believes about the extent of antisemitism in the Labour Party it was clearly weaponised from 2017 onwards while racism in general (which is clearly a problem within the Labour establishment) hardly get’s a mention.

Its arguably true that 2019 was a Brexit election. The Tories had made it that and, on the door it was second in the list for many who said they couldn’t vote Labour. The unfounded accusation of Corbyn being antisemitic only further turned people against him when he had no choice but to put forward a second referendum. The anti-Corbyn, anti-Labour narrative had become a runaway train; all we had to look forward to was sorting through the inevitable wreckage. But while much of the antagonism towards Corbyn was manufactured and put about by his opponents, the Brexit conundrum was ultimately down to the Labour membership whatever its roots.

In 2017, Brexit was obviously a hot topic (less than a year since the referendum) and was the reason for the snap election as May needed to increase her majority in order to push Brexit through. However, it hardly got a mention in the campaign cycle. Labour’s position was to honour the vote so the Brexiteers had little to carp about. For the remainers, Labours attack on the Tory record, austerity, and its focus on the many rather than the few, gave Brexit little breathing space. The unwinnable argument was successfully sidestepped.

Going into 2018, the People’s Vote gained traction and while claiming justification through the exposure of possible electoral fraud its only real impact was in further dividing the country. There was no evidence that a materially significant proportion of people had changed their minds and it was championed by the same establishment people who, if anything, had convinced disenchanted leavers of the rightness of their cause. Those crying foul didn’t want to see how self-righteous they looked. The majority of Labour members were against Brexit so it wasn’t too hard to push Labour into a compromise over Brexit. So instead of Labour standing apart by championing a reasonable Brexit it let itself become mired in a Parliamentary debate that royally pissed off the public and put Labour firmly in the ‘like all the others’ camp.

While Labour’s 2019 manifesto has been proved to have been pragmatic after this Tory government has actually implemented some of its recommendations in response to the epidemic, the claim that it was too long has some merit. However, that only illustrates how Labour became engrossed in policy to the detriment of its cutting edge seen in 2017. Jeremy’s energy levels appeared low during the campaign and he looked like a leader beseiged at times. Though he never conceeded to the media’s insistance that he should apologise for his position regarding antisemitism, his cutting edge had been blunted. The enemies in his own party had successfully demonised him as an unelectable, unpatriotic antisemite and his friends had forced him onto the fence with regard to Brexit. The internationalist champion of working people and Parliamentary rebel had been tamed and subdued, and the media like vultures, circled round, picking the bones of a would be prime minister.

This isn’t an obituary for a failed election campaign, its a reflection on how a populist movement was crushed from within. The right wing press are what they are, the BBC is always biased towards the sitting government and voters tend to act as a herd (this isn’t meant to be derogatory — herds can positively protect a society as well as drive it over a cliff). If you pay attention to the goings on within Westminster it‘s possible to pick up the countervailing arguments but its entirely unrealistic and unreasonable for the general public to even care when it appears to be the bubble it actually is. The capitulation, even within Corbyn’s inner circle (and even himself) to the narrative constructed by his opponents within 2 years of Labour’s outstanding performance in 2017 hastened the movement’s nadir.

The ‘blue no matter who’ call to vote for a Democrat in the US elections is echoed in the insistance that the Labour Party is the only path to ending the terror of this present government. Unfortunately the last 5 years have proved that Labour is pathologically resistant to radical change and any legitimate route to turning it into a people’s party is doomed to failure. Its well said that justice is only ever won, its never given. The right will always cheat which means when the left play by the rules we consistently lose. The idea that the left could rescue the party was fatally flawed in that it meant playing by the rules when the dice was always loaded.

I was outraged when Rebecca Long Bailey was summarily dismissed from the shadow cabinet in what was obviously a partisan decision but more than that, I’m saddened at her decline as a leader of the left. From being the driving force behind the Green New Deal, her campaign for leadership of the party was replete with capitulations to vested interests. She effectively threw Maxine Peake under the bus in trying to ingratiate herself and submitted to the unfairness of the dismissal in a way that dishonoured those who stood up for her. I don’t want to dump on Rebecca but this is a perfect example of how the left so often face opposition. If the party itself is acting as an oppressor it must be called out and held to account. I don’t care if this plays into the hands of the Tories, its the right thing to do.

As someone has said, the Labour Party has no inalienable right to exist and that must be the position of true socialists. If it goes rogue its existence should be threatened. Regardless of it being considered the only party standing in the way of the Tories, its allegiance must be to truth, justice and working people, not to a political goal that cannot be attained while traitors from within ensure it remains in permanent opposition. As C.K.Chesterton wrote in The Defendent.

‘My country, right or wrong,’ … is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’

Similarly it could be said, “Labour, playing by Establishment rules” is like saying “Workers accepting poverty wages”. Such a party doesn’t represent the labour movement. Real change will only come when politicians live and die by their principles instead of a blind allegiance to a party. No one should see being an MP as a career, they need to be dispensible and as easy to drop as to elect.

As done to death as it is, the meme, “if you set something free…” is profoundly true. If you truly love anything, you must be prepared to lose it.

See also: Thomas Frank on Useful Idiots
and: Thomas Frank: The People No

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